Billy Bragg and Joe Henry in Belfast
The Ulster Hall, Belfast
29th January 2017
Two guitars, two voices, one fantastic concert. Ostensibly this tour was to promote their album ‘Shine A Light’. However, given the current highly charged political climate, it was always going to be so much more than this.
The album itself is a collection of thematically linked songs recorded during a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles – a kind of “Bill and Joe’s Excellent Adventure”. Recordings took place at railway sidings, waiting rooms or hotels with a history to the railroad, and needing to be completed in accordance with the train’s timetable.
The songs are stories of the economic migrants who built the track across the scorching barren stretches of America’s heartland, and the dispossessed who rode the line or lived alongside it. The imagery of the railroad runs deep in the American songbook.
At 8.00pm exactly, Billy Bragg and the always immaculately dressed Joe Henry took the stage. ‘Railroad Bill’, ‘The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ and ‘In The Pines’ were all lovingly re-created.
Each song was introduced as our curators for this history lesson took it in turns to explain the background to each tale, or the reason for its inclusion. The concert was bookended by songs from the album, But it was the two solo sets that really placed this gig apart.
Joe Henry is not as well known this side of the Atlantic as his good friend Billy Bragg, but he should be. Creator of 13 albums, equally influenced by folk, blues, jazz, and country, and the producer of records for Bonnie Raitt, Rodney Crowell and Loudon Wainwright amongst others. His songs were the first indication that we were witnessing something special.
Joe confided that he was almost embarrassed by his nationality at present. As an American abroad, he had watched with disbelief as his country lurched ominously to the right and the voice of the many who yearned for inclusion was lost.
‘Trampoline’, a call for us not to be held back by constraints, was his first volley. This, however, was no polemic aimed at the, as yet unnamed elephant in the room. Rather, his gorgeous piano-led ‘My Country’ and ‘God Only Knows’ were more a rallying cry for us to face up to the challenge, and make us “a better man”.
His declaration that “this is where we are, not who we are” was greeted with rapt applause. His tribute to Allan Toussaint, who died last year, ‘Help Us On Our Way’ closed the first half, with a degree of poignancy and expectation.
If you are one of the people who believe politics and music don’t mix, then don’t go to a gig with Billy Bragg on the bill. The be-quiffed elephant in the room was finally named as the leader of the free and very frightened world – President Trump – as he continues his quest to become the most reviled politician of the last 70 years.
Dylan’s 60s anthem, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Back)’ was amended to include many of Trump’s targets. Muslims, Mexicans, women, and the LGBTQ community. ‘An Accident Waiting To Happen’ asked why we had not seen the rise of this narcissistic despot.
But particularly resonant on the night was a song written 4 years ago by Anais Mitchell, for her musical ‘Hadestown’, was ‘Why We Built The Wall’.
How does the wall keep us free. The wall keeps out the enemy. What do we have that they should want? We have a wall to work upon. We have work and they have none and the wall keeps out the enemy.
Billy’s closer for his set ‘Between The Wars’, which was inspired by the miner’s strike, finds a new consideration in these troubled times.
If this all sounds a bit worthy and dry, it was not, as there was a constant flow of humour from the stage and good will back from the audience. A shouted question from the crowd as to whom they should vote for, found Billy perplexed at his own choices in England.
With Joe suggesting playfully that Billy came to start a riot. Memories of 30 pints of Guinness being left after a gig in this very hall on the night Thatcher resigned 27 years ago brought a huge cheer from an evidently partisan crowd.
Joe returned to the stage to continue the railroad journey with strong covers of songs by Leadbelly, Gordon Lightfoot, Glen Campbell, and a brilliant rendition of ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ most closely associated with Woody Guthrie.
Finishing with Woody’s ‘Ramblin’ Round’, the point was succinctly made – the migrant workers who built the railroads, the inhabitants of the Calais jungle, the Syrian refugees are all the same; people seeking solace anywhere they can.
The standing ovation that followed was richly justified. Music cannot change the world, but it can make us reflect on what is happening with our fellow man, and make us want to be agents of change for the better. As Billy put it “Empathy is nothing without action”.
So, a night of great music, and deep emotion. Not a night of angry rhetoric and protest but of a common hope in humanity, based on the decency of the individual and a desire for the common good. Hopefully, Billy and Joe will holiday together again soon!